X2: X-Men United (2003)


Imagine having your body hijacked. Imagine hurtling down corridors and careening around corners, with no sense of what’s in front of you. Add to all that, the corridors are in the White House, so Secret Service agents are shooting at you. How scary and strange. And at the same time, how exhilarating, to be so speedy, to soar and pounce, to turn into red vapor and re-assemble at will, to elude gunfire without resorting to that wussy slo-mo bullet-time — to be, in effect, an embodied videogame.

At once all powerful and utterly powerless, this involuntary terrorist is the first mutant you meet in X2: X-Men United . Poor teleporter mutant Kurt Wagner, a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming wearing blue paint and yellow teeth), appears initially in disguise, skulking in a trench-coat and hanging back from a White House Tour. He takes a breath, then leaps into action, literally bouncing off the walls as he dodges bullets, bodies, and best efforts by highly trained professionals. As wily Kurt makes his way to the Oval Office, agents scatter, regroup, slam doors, spit orders into their headsets, to no avail. Within minutes, this little blue whirly-guy knocks all opponents flat and snatches up the President (whose resemblance to Bush is more than passing). Here, Kurt straddles Mr. Leader of the Free World, blade in hand. And then — pfft! — Nightcrawler is gone.

The genius of this scene (easily the movie’s best — the most fun, the most elegant, and the most apparently timely) lies in its undeniable, self-satisfied glee. For these few whizzy instants, X2 has no worries about explaining who’s who, no interest in crafting a context, no care except to fling you from wall to wall and thrill to thrill.

Following this energetic intro, however, Bryan Singer’s film returns more or less to the form established by 1999’s hugely lucrative X-Men ($157 million and counting). First, a brief re-acquaintance session at the School for Gifted Children (where adult mutants teach young mutants how to survive in a world full of haters): fatherly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) nods wisely; Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) frets because, as she says (again demonstrating her special gift for stating the obvious), “Something’s wrong”; Storm (Halle Berry) messes with atmospheric pressures; and Jean’s whiny beau Cyclops (James Marsden) has so little to do that he might as well have stayed home. It’s understandable that he’s so pouty, though, because again, the film focuses on the charismatic Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), still pursuing his lost past and looking mean whenever those knives poke through his knuckles.

Down in the food court (the School is assiduously state-of-the-art), the kids emulate their mentors: as Rogue (Anna Paquin) flirts with very well-mannered fellow student Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), the slightly less well behaved Pyro (Aaron Stanford) gets jealous. One throws ice, the other fireballs: these new white-boy mutants aren’t exactly innovative, but their friction suggests that this next generation will replicate the rift between Xavier and his queeny ex-friend Magneto (Ian McKellan). In other words, while Professor X notes that “Sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute,” the truth is that the mutants also have trouble getting along.

This would be the most obvious point made by X-Men, the Marvel comic books and the movie franchise: everyone lives in fear (of persecution, invasion, exposure) and the X-men are victims of fearful prejudice (representing queers, racial minorities, etc.). This premise is underlined Nightcrawler’s incursion at the White House, which frightens him more than anyone else, when he realizes that someone unknown has grabbed control of his body. This is the daily fear for mutants: their bodies define them. They’re named for what their bodies can do (Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, et. al., with the exception of Jean Grey), and they’re judged and feared for same. They can’t escape their bodies and powers, and neither can they always control them.

The mutants hang together, forming stable communities of unstable bodies. Here, the teleporter Kurt, the shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and the powers-stealer Rogue are emphatically emblematic — their gifts make them become something or someone else, they take on traces of other beings, they have no fixed identities. The X-Men, as their name both suggests and resists, must be identified, limited by those who behold them.

Chief among these fearful beholders in X2 is the President’s man, the aptly named General Stryker (Brian Cox). He’s like a cartoony amalgam of Dick Cheney meets Norman Schwarzkopf meets General Buck Turgidson, angry and afraid and sure that he’s right. Once the President feels vulnerable, he does two things: 1) he signs the Mutant Registration Act, which resembles current draconian measures against “immigrants”; and 2) he gives Stryker free rein to round up suspects and gather information. Not only does the General call in the attack choppers and super-troops with night-vision goggles; he also deploys his very own assassin-mutant, Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), all in the hopes of taking down Xavier and company.

Because he’s a comic book villain, Stryker, has intensely personal motivation for his rage: his own son, Jason 143 (Michael Reid MacKay), is a mutant. Botched efforts to “cure” him of his affliction have left Jason 143 essentially vegetative in a wheelchair, but with a mind so powerful he can control Xavier’s. Even better, Jason 143 still wants to please his father. And so, Stryker sends him after Xavier and Cerebro (X’s Big Fat Mind-Link Machine), which leads to a holodeckish showdown that might have been familiar to Captain Picard if his mind wasn’t under Jason 143’s potent sway.

As tends to happen in movies that pursue themes like this, Stryker and Jason 143 are only one father-son pairing. Logan also seeks his parentage, while serving as a kind of father-protector to some students (definitely a healthier role for him with regard to Rogue than the romance of X-Men). Kurt is deeply invested in his Catholic God, which means he’s given to reciting the Lord’s Prayer. And Iceman has to out himself to his parents, who are thoroughly dull in their rote rejections. And of course, X is the father figure to beat all, having it out with Jason 143 in order to save his worldwide mutant brood.

Amid all the father-son business, this familiar search for stability and definition, it is the shifty mutants who are the most exciting, the least predictable, the least like other heroes you’ve seen before. Mystique, for her part, makes the most of her flexibility, revealing in the sequel an oddly engaging personality. She’s crafty and confident, insidious and sinuous. And though she, along with most everyone else, falls victim to X2‘s Logan fixation, Mystique does make the most of her on-screen minutes. Aside from Kurt’s breathless first scene, the liveliest scene pitches Mystique and Magneto against the uptight, morally straight X-Men. See especially, their girlish dishing over Rogue’s new streaks: “We just love what you’ve done with your hair!”

Mystique and Kurt do steal the few scenes they’re in (maybe it’s because they’re both blue). This suggests that the shiftiest mutants are indeed the franchise’s future. Moving and mutating within themselves, they’re less vulnerable to the films’ lapses: narrative overextension and surprisingly cheesy effects. Determined to do “justice” to their source and show a little bit of all the mutants, both films focus on numbers (lots of X-Men, lots of crosscuts, lots of plots) rather than their built-in perverse substance. Really, the weirder, more volatile mutants are where the action is. It’s good to have X, Logan, and Storm around as comparisons, but the perpetually mutating mutants are more inventive, appreciating and incarnating lack of definition, by definition.